At the start of the pandemic, April 2020, I was offered my first medical liaison role. I had been a Hematology/Oncology Physician Assistant for 13 years and was excited to start my new career in Medical Affairs. Adapting to virtual onboarding and virtual scientific engagements, were some of the barriers that I encountered in my job transition. Prior to COVID, my favorite pastime and stress reliever was cooking and baking. My grandma taught me her secret pound cake recipe over 20 years ago. (Specifically, I am known for making specialty pound cakes.) Her recipe helped me get through my first year as a medical liaison. Here are some of the most important instructions:
Start with a cold oven. The perfect pound cake starts with a cold oven. At the start of a new position, a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) receives a target list of potential health care providers (HCPs) and key opinion leaders (KOLs) in their territory. The MSL must take ownership of mapping and building their territory. This could involve a multitude of unreturned “cold” calls and unanswered emails when asking for an initial meeting. Collaboration with commercial colleagues can help identify major accounts and KOLs in the territory.
Plan ahead and read the recipe. By reading the recipe prior to starting, you ensure that you have all the necessary ingredients and tools to make the cake. In addition to territory mapping, pre-call planning is essential to being a successful MSL. After my first meeting with a major KOL, I followed up by sending literature for review. Unknowingly, I sent a copy of an article that the KOL co-authored! Pre-call planning involves knowing who you are meeting with, what their interests are, and what you plan to discuss. Now, prior to every meeting, I research the KOL using resources like Google, LinkedIn, PubMed, and Twitter.
Use quality ingredients. Choosing low-quality ingredients can affect the taste and density of the pound cake. New MSLs may get caught up on metrics and target specific listening priorities. The focus should be on quality interactions that provide the KOL with the information that is pertinent to them. When you focus on quality versus quantity, you create impactful relationships with KOLs. Those impactful relationships could then lead to an interest in advisory boards and research studies. An MSL once told me that if you focus on quality engagements, the metrics will follow.
Don’t add all your ingredients at once. My grandma warned me not to add all the pound cake ingredients to the bowl at once. She advised that alternating adding eggs and flour to the batter leads to a fluffy and moist cake. An effective MSL does not “data dump”. You do not give KOLs information, just to give information. Additionally, do not provide your KOLs with all of your scientific information on your first engagement. (Don’t put all your eggs in one bowl and hand them to the KOL.) Always confirm the KOL’s interests and secure a date and time for a follow-up engagement.
Baking is a science, follow the recipe. You must follow the measurements in the recipe. If the measurements are altered, this could lead to pound cake that will not rise. MSLs must know their compliance rules. Any missteps could be detrimental to the company or the MSLs career. Of importance is knowing how to navigate KOL engagements and commercial encounters compliantly.
Add some flavor. My grandma’s secret recipe is for a plain cream cheese pound cake. I took her basic recipe and added different flavors, creating strawberry, key lime, and several other flavors. MSLs are provided with general decks and scientific literature; however, they can choose how to disseminate that information. You should not just read your slides or spew out statistical data. You should use your own style and make the engagement conversational. You should think about what makes you stand out as an MSL and what makes KOLS want to engage with you. To be honest, after two years, I am still developing my own personal brand as an MSL.
Don’t open the oven multiple times. Opening the oven door allows heat to escape the oven, which will lead to your pound cake dropping and falling flat. MSLs should cultivate their relationships with KOLs. At the start of the relationship and periodically, MSLs should confirm the KOL’s desired cadence of meeting. Some may want to meet monthly while others may want to meet twice a year. It is important to not overextend your requests for meetings. However, leaving a cake in the oven too long leads to a burnt cake. Be patient, it takes time to cultivate relationships.
Look at other recipes. My grandma perfected her recipe by asking others how they made their poundcake. She was receptive to their techniques and applied them to her own recipe. As an MSL, you are a constant learner. Whether you have been an MSL for 2 years or 5 years, you can always improve your craft. Since I started my medical affairs position, I have listened to podcasts and followed Medical Affairs groups on LinkedIn. I attended my first MSL Society Conference and found it beneficial for new and seasoned MSLs. I polled seasoned MSLs to learn how I could improve securing KOL engagements. My newer teammates have shown me how to use Microsoft One Note to enhance my KOL pre-call planning and Google Maps for effective territory mapping.
My first two years in Medical Affairs have been a mixed bag of treats. Keeping my grandma’s recipe in my mind will surely help me as I grow into the role. Now I am off to ask her how to make chocolate frosting from scratch.
Letitia Price, DMSc, MCMSc, PA-C
Letitia is a Hematology Community Medical (CML) at Syneos Health contracted with GSK. She has 13 years of experience as a Hematology/Oncology physician assistant. She became a CML in April 2020. In January 2021, she received her Doctorate in Medical Science from Lynchburg University. Letitia is a Breast Cancer Awareness Advocate and spends most of her time fundraising for breast cancer. She is a Florida State University Alum and a die-hard Seminole Fan. Considering herself an avid foodie, she loves to bake, cook, and travel. Her grandma, Alberta, recently celebrated her 90th birthday and continues to bake pound cakes to this day.